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Why You Can (Maybe) Skip Your Next Pap Test

Why You Can (Maybe) Skip Your Next Pap Test

Many years ago, I had a series of borderline abnormal Pap tests. Eventually, I got “just in case” treatment: A portion of my cervix was frozen to get rid of the suspicious cells. The treatment was uncomfortable and raised the risk that if and when I got pregnant, I might go into labor early. But it was worth it to prevent cervical cancer.

Except that a Pap smear the doctor did just moments before the treatment eventually came back completely normal.

I haven't suffered from the unnecessary treatment—I waddled through both my pregnancies all the way to term. But my experience makes me sympathetic to the concerns of experts about the possible downsides of cancer screenings, even when it comes to tried-and-true tests like the Pap smear.

So here’s the good news: Many women can now safely slash the number of Pap tests they get.

If you’re between 21 and 65, you can now wait three years between Pap tests according to updated guidelines from the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Screening every three years starting at 21 saves the same number of lives as annual screening, according to USPSTF.

You can get a Pap test even less often—to once every five years—if you’re between 30 and 65 and you get both the Pap test and the human papillomavirus (HPV) test at the same time. Remember that HPV is the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) supports the Task Force’s recommendations, noting that women who are 30 or older who have had a normal Pap test result have a very low risk of getting cervical cancer in the next few years. The Task Force does not recommend HPV screening in women under 30; these women are prone to HPV infections but their bodies typically clear the infection with no problem.

If you’re under 21, the Task Force recommends against cervical cancer screening because it doesn’t appear to lower the number of cases or save lives. Also, the USPSTF advises that women 65 and older with a history of normal Pap test results and women who have had a hysterectomy with the removal of the cervix stop screening.

According to the Task Force, the updated guidelines will cut down on the number of colposcopies (an examination of the cervix using a lighten magnifying tool, during which a tissue sample is taken) and false-positive results like the one I had.

Don’t take the guidelines as license to skip your annual GYN visit, though. Even if you don’t need a Pap test, the doctor will still check your blood pressure, give you a breast, abdominal, and pelvic exam, and talk about any health problems you may be having.

And while you're waiting for your next Pap, remember that there are other steps you can take to prevent cervical cancer, such as practicing safe sex, limiting the number of sex partners you have and avoiding smoking.

Medically reviewed in May 2019.

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